Jeffrey Daniel Torborg
Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche’s The Magical Play of Illusion: The Autobiography of Trijang Rinpoche (2018) recounts his life from the year of his birth in 1901 until 1975, six years before his death in 1981. A student and then monk at Ganden Monastery in Lhasa, Trijang Rinpoche describes his early training in verse, composition, memorization, logic, epistemology, Middle Way philosophy, and ritual, culminating in his being appointed junior tutor to His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, alongside senior tutor Kyabje Ling Rinpoche. His tireless teaching and traveling continued even after the violent presence of the Chinese Communists in Tibet forced His Holiness and his entourage to flee from Tibet to India. Trijang Rinpoche’s autobiography provides a fascinating glance at the unstable political climate of Tibet in the mid-twentieth century, especially its relationship with China after 1950, and a view of the life of the Dalai Lama; most importantly, however, it chronicles the training and teaching of a dedicated, patient, and (above all) humble Buddhist lecturer and mentor: Trijang Rinpoche himself.
Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche was born Losang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, in the U-Tsang province in Tibet. His father was Tsering Dondrup, a paternal relative of the Seventh Dalai Lama, and responsible for the administration of the Gungthang Monastery. Trijang Rinpoche’s early childhood was marked by his affinity for religious objects, his closeness with monks, and the miraculous growth of a peach tree the winter before his birth. These and other signs led him to be declared the reincarnation of the Eighty-Fifth Ganden Throneholder, Losang Tsultrim Palden, himself a reincarnation of the Sixty-Ninth Ganden Throneholder Jangchup Chopel. In 1904, he was taken to Trijang Labrang in Lhasa, and shortly thereafter began his education under Ngakrampa; he first committed to memory the text, Chanting the Names of Manjusri, and shortly thereafter continued his reading and memorization at a rapid pace, enrolling at Ganden Monastery, where he scrupulously attended morning and evening debates, prayers, recitations, and other rituals.
At the Shartse monastic college in Ganden, studying logic and philosophy under the tutor Losang Tsultrim, political conflict first crept its way into the background of Trijang Rinpoche’s studies: on the return of His Holiness the Thirteenth Dalai Lama from China and Mongolia, Tibetans were killed by Chinese artillery east of Lhasa, and the monastic community at Lhasa suffered humiliation by the Chinese military presence there. Surviving a devastating smallpox outbreak at Ganden, Trijang Rinpoche began his study of grammar, composition, and Middle Way Philosophy at Ganden, culminating in his passing the Geshe Lharampa examination during the Great Prayer Festival in 1919, though at this time he grew painfully aware of the inadequacy of mere study and reflection without application through practice, a concern that would reappear the whole of his religious life. Enrolling at Gyuto Tantric College, Trijang Rinpoche attended the discourses of Kyabje Phabongkha Vajradhara; moved by their delicacy and profundity, he compiled his notes on the stages of the path from this and various other occasions and published Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand.
On a teaching trip to Chatreng, Trijang Rinpoche encountered armed soldiers in and around the monastery, which fell under siege of partisan forces, and was present even for the assassination of Lama Chophak of the Dzedze Monastery carried out by a party from Chatreng. Before departing, Trijang Rinpoche conducted various visits, teachings, and initiations at monasteries around Chatreng, counseled against reprisal for a robbery of a business caravan involving the Palbar family (a business venture which he himself had been drawn into), and endured multiple threats of a group of monks and laypeople in the Chatreng area.
After a fraught trip home to Lhasa, in 1930 Trijang Rinpoche suffered a serious kidney infection, and on recovering, was charged by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama with the ritual preparation of the body of the recently-deceased Losang Gyaltsen. This responsibility proved prophetic, for in 1933, on the passing of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama himself, the ritual bathing of his body was left, among others, to Trijang Rinpoche. Witnessing local factional disputes between rulers in Lhasa, Trijang Rinpoche continued his studies, which included tantric teachings from Kyabje Phabongkha Vajradhara on the illusory nature of the body and the senses, teachings on Nagarjuna and Asanga, and on Asvaghosa’s Fifty Verses on Guru Devotion. Soon thereafter, in 1939, while continuing his traveling and teaching around Lhasa, Trijang Rinpoche was assigned assistant tutor to His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, training him first in writing and memorization of daily prayers. In the years afterwards, Trijang Rinpoche describes tutoring His Holiness, teaching others, and learning, often recounting gently humorous anecdotes: at the commencement of His Holiness’ dialectical studies at Drepung, he describes the general good-humored laughter that broke out amid a recitation, on hearing the radically different pitches of monks Gyatso Ling and Geshe Khyenrap Gyatso.
Domestic factional concerns continued to loom in the background, however, as evidenced by the violent clashes of Sera Je monks with government soldiers at Radreng Monastery. The conflict would mount further in the form of the arrival of the Communist Chinese Army in Chamdo, arresting a number of religious and civilian figures there. On the advice and divinations of his advisors, on November 17, 1950, His Holiness assumed the highest position of spiritual and political leadership over Tibet, remaining in Dromo to safely carry out negotiations with the Chinese. Returning to Lhasa in 1953, Trijang Rinpoche continued to teach (although similar fears of his merely reciting wisdom without embodying it remained), and was appointed junior tutor to His Holiness (Ling Rinpoche having been appointed to senior tutor). In 1954, His Holiness took full ordination at Lhasa’s Tsuklakhang. Soon after, having accepted an invitation to attend the National People’s Congress in Beijing, His Holiness and his advisors (including Trijang Rinpoche) were invited to various industrial plants and shows in China; Trijang Rinpoche, meanwhile, taught Chinese Buddhists in secret and was encouraged to broadcast a pre-prepared, pro-Chinese radio speech to Lhasa, which met with the derision of Lhasa natives. Supervised constantly by Chinese guards, Trijang Rinpoche traveled and taught from Chatreng to Chamdo, returning finally to Lhasa, where he was pressured by Chinese officials in Tibet to teach at a local middle school and to sit on a government religious committee, where in both contexts he felt his presence performative and useless, the committee’s decisions falling unquestioningly on the side of the Chinese representative’s recommendations.
Amid constant news of the violence and destruction resulting from the forceful Chinese occupation of Tibet, Trijang Rinpoche continued his teaching and his studies, guiding His Holiness through his geshe examinations. After the Chinese military headquarters in Lhasa invited the Dalai Lama to an army camp on the condition he comes with limited protections, an outraged Tibetan public staged a protest outside the Norbulingka Palace that turned violent, and fearing further trouble, on March 17th, 1959, His Holiness and a small entourage that included Trijang Rinpoche escaped in secret from Lhasa (which only a short time afterward suffered heavy damage from heavy Chinese artillery fire), landing finally in India. There, Trijang Rinpoche and others were the subjects of a vicious propaganda campaign by the Chinese Communists, who labeled him a violent reactionary leader. Settling in Dharamsala, Trijang Rinpoche delivered teachings in the Geluk tradition, often to large crowds, and continued his intellectual relationships with His Holiness and Ling Rinpoche. While Pakistan’s war with India raged in the background, Trijang Rinpoche began connecting with Tibetans in exile from the Chinese presence in Tibet; after being present at the opening of the Tibet House in Delhi, he visited resettled Tibetans in Switzerland, Germany, England, France, and Italy, visiting Christian churches in Germany, the Red Cross headquarters and Bern, and meeting Pope Paul VI at the Vatican. Continuing his religious teachings, he also stressed the importance of the preservation of Tibetan culture, language, and customs, even working to restore damaged Tibetan statues brought to India for safe-keeping. The last years of his life, in the frequent company of His Holiness, were spent teaching and discoursing both in India and abroad, often with Kyabje Ling Rinpoche. A testament to his humility, Trijang Rinpoche continued to stress his own ignorance and weakness relative to greater, earlier teachers. He passed away peacefully in 1981. The search having been guided by His Holiness, Trijang Rinpoche’s reincarnation was identified in northern India: Trijang Choktrul Rinpoche today resides in Vermont, the spiritual director of the Trijang Buddhist Institute.